The future of welfare

From benefit reforms to cuts to care budgets, austerity has transformed British society. What does the future of welfare look like? 

Sue Himmelweit John Clarke
28 April 2015

People's Assembly march against austerity, Summer 2014. Image: Flickr / Marienna Pope-Weidemann

As part of the CCIG Lecture series 'Being on the line: citizenship, identities and governance in times of crises', John Clarke and Sue Himmelweit reflected on the current ‘austerity’ model and analysed its consequences on people’s lives. John Clarke argued that austerity, presented as a virtuous necessity, has deeply changed British politics. In particular, the concept of fairness has been inverted: fairness is no more for those who are disadvantaged; it is for those who have. Sue Himmelweit, on the other hand, argued that care norms have changed and a crisis in both child and adult care has been intensified through the adoption of austerity and the imposition of market based policies. Both interventions are an invitation to critically assess debates around the current general election. 

Austerity: a virtuous necessity? 

On the 21 May 2013, John Clarke gave a lecture on contemporary politics and policies of governing the social in the age of ‘austerity’. 

‘Austerity’ is understood in the current coalition government as a virtuous necessity. Austerity occupies a paradoxical position in Conservative & Coalition discourse. Austerity is said to be freely chosen by the UK, not forced on us by external powers. Nevertheless, this Choice is presented as being not driven by ideology, but as an absolute necessity. “We are all in this together” has been the mantra of the Conservatives since 2009, and can be seen as a performative moment. This is undoubtedly a major shift in British politics. 

What are the claimed core values of the coalition government? Freedom, fairness, and responsibility. The idea of making responsible people, however, needs to be dissected. The current government has fantastic enthusiasm for making people responsible. The problem becomes the ‘irresponsibles’, those who are not earning, those who are exploitative, those who do not know how to make the right choices. This underlines how much the concept of ‘fairness’ has been transformed in becoming central to current political culture. The concept of fairness has indeed known interesting mutations. From the mid-1990s, the use of ‘fairness’ by New Labour watered down earlier concepts of equity and equality. Fairness became part of a discourse that embeds conditionality in the reorganisation of the rights and responsibilities of citizens. 

This nurtures a culture of suspicion. Rather than being ‘all in this together, we are invite to suspect there are some who are not pulling their weight, that some of us are not doing our bit. Some of us fail to rise to the challenges of austerity and the demands that it places on us. The dividing line of suspicion is between those who earn their participation as citizens, and those who do not.

In the coalition government, discourses are driven by the idea that ‘you cannot solve problems by throwing money at them’. Worse, if you throw money at people, you undermine their moral capacity to be independent (as demonstrated in the ‘dependency trap’ denounced by Cameron). These political regimes of truth have dominated the welfare debate. 

Earning fairness has been turned into a different sort of disciplinary mechanism. This is the point where fairness is now defined as only available for those who ‘earn’ it and has become conditional. It no longer applies to the poorest or the most excluded. We are told that we are the victims of unfairness because of those who are leeching off us. It inverts what has been the historical discourse of fairness. Fairness is no more for those who are disadvantaged; it is for those who have, and that is an astonishing turn around. 

This way of framing ‘fairness’ has a direct impact on welfare reform, housing benefits reform, jobseeking allowance reforms. It goes also wider: it also applies for instance to working conditions and policing. Fairness has been used to legitimate both greater inequality and authoritarian measures. 

Care, in and beyond an era of austerity

On the 27 of January 2015, Sue Himmelweit gave a keynote on care: in and beyond an era of austerity.

The care system was already unsustainable before the financial crisis, relying on out-of-date gender roles and unacceptably poor pay and working conditions of care workers. In many countries there is a care penalty: not only poorly qualified people, but also those with higher qualifications who could apply their skills in many environments, are paid less if they work in the care sector. This has led to recruitment and retention problems in the care industry and thus falling availability and standards of care. 

This happened during a period of financialisation, in which finance capital promoted a small state that would tax less and not waste resources on ‘reproducing people’. The traditional supporters of the welfare state, both industrial capital and the working class, lost influence. The rising cost of social care has been an obsession of both Labour and Conservatives since the 1980s, claiming that they were making the system unaffordable. But such rising costs were in practice just the necessary costs of transition to a more gender-equitable society with increased women’s employment. Instead of the state accommodating these costs of promoting a fairer society, families were left with the option of paying more for care, providing more care themselves or leaving needs unmet. But this was counterproductive, rising inequality then left increasing numbers needing state support to meet care needs. 

An attempt to counteract this through market competition initially led to care services being put out to tender to private providers and then to care recipients being given their own budgets to buy care services. These policies were supported by the argument that increased competition in the care sector would foster responsiveness of services to individual needs and thus enhance its quality. Underlying such arguments, however, remained the obsession with containing public spending. In practice, market competition does not work to enhance care quality, because it is too hard for individuals to monitor and care markets tend to be very local without little real competition. In practice any savings through the use of the market comes at the expense of care workers (who in the private sector are less likely to be unionised) and care recipients (whose eligibility for public support has tightened, and spending per recipient diminished drastically).

Given the unsustainable state of social care before the financial crisis, what has happened since it? Austerity was not the only possible response to the crisis, nor even the fastest way of re-establishing business as usual. Nonetheless, the interests of finance capital - seen through the lens of what the markets would allow - prevailed. Resources spent on reproducing people, including on care, were seen as too high (even the cause of the economic crisis). Falls in living standards and cuts in spending in public services were not unfortunate by-products of austerity, but the measures of its success in meeting its goals. Austerity has been accepted as necessary, and care has been constructed as a form of waste. 

This is particularly true regarding the kinds of care needed by the most vulnerable: long term care (care for people who are not expected to get better), mainly, and not exclusively for the elderly. In 2010 there was a 26%, and in 2013 a further 10%, cut in government grants to local authorities responsible for the provision of long term care, while an increasing elderly population meant demand rose at the same time. Spending on residential care and day care dropped considerably, and eligibility criteria were tightened further. Even the Care Quality Commission registered concern about quality sustainability and the rise of unmet needs. Half a million people have lost access to social care: they are left to either rely on their own funds or on relatives. 

Another aspect of austerity is its impact on paid care workers, who are now the largest occupational group among the lowpaid. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 10 to 16% of them are considered at risk of being paid less that the national minimum wage, usually through the use of “zero hours” or other “creative” contracts that do not count all hours in which a carer’s presence is needed as “work”. The vast majority of care workers are on these types of contracts.

Constraining spending on care is presented as a national necessity and has reshaped social norms around lowered expectations in terms of access and quality of care. This has led to increasing demands on families, especially on women (whether they provide unpaid care or whether they are underpaid as care workers). Such lowering of expectations and care norms is the direct effect of austerity. 

What would an alternative strategy be? A plan ‘F’ exists, a feminist plan. We should first reject the government’s (and finance capital’s) obsession with having a small state and instead invest in social infrastructures in order to build a more sustainable care system. We should reduce our reliance on gendered norms, get rid of poor working conditions, and make sure that access to quality care is available for those who need it. This requires equalising the opportunity costs of men and women in doing unpaid care, as well as improving the conditions in paid care, so that both men and women enter it. To achieve this, it is important to recognise the common interests of care workers and care recipients in better working conditions and care standards and organise around them. To set good standards both in care provision and in care workers conditions, strong public or non-for-profit provisions are needed. Such a system could be funded through progressive taxation on a large tax base.

How can we argue for this in the current climate? Plan F is itself a way out of the current crisis. Care should be recognised as an investment in a key component of the social infrastructure. Spending on care is also a very effective economic stimulus. It would generate much employment and promote greater equality as well as ensure the sustainability of care provision. The language of investment and infrastructure is now used more frequently with respect to care at the political level (Labour, LibDem, SNP), but a lot remains to be done if we are to have a genuinely sustainable care system that combats rather than entrenches gender inequality.


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